2010 Leadership Award Recipient: Seeing the big picture

2010 Leadership Award Recipient: Seeing the big picture

While the man and his company have a long and storied past, it is the future that drives David J. Frank.

July 26, 2013

Being the founder and driving force behind Wisconsin’s largest landscape management company, it would be easy for David J. Frank to sit back, rest on his laurels and enjoy all that life has afforded him, but that’s not who this man is.

While the man and his company have a long and storied past – receiving countless awards and honors – it is the future that drives him.

Founded in 1959, Frank has been in snow removal services since about 1965. He got started by adding the winter services to his landscape maintenance offerings for existing clients. It expanded greatly from there.

The typical Wisconsin snow season, in terms of precipitation, starts somewhere around the middle of November and ends by mid April, although the team’s preparation for the season – equipment, renewals and material acquisition – starts in earnest about July 1 each year. “Our firm is a leading landscape architectural, construction, design-build, maintenance, interiorscape, irrigation and nursery full-service firm, which fills in a lot of time during the other eight months of the year,” he says.

When asked to pin down his favorite season, Frank was unable name one. Instead he looked at the professional demands of each, rather than taking a view from the entertainment angle or ease to navigate.  “I enjoy all seasons,” he says. “There are different challenges in each season and I truly enjoy the changing challenges.”

Terry Wakefield, chief executive officer of The Wakefield Co.s, has worked with David J. Frank Landscape Contracting for more than 25 years. When he built his award-winning Wisconsin golf course, The Bog, he had Frank provide services on the project.  But the relationship goes much deeper and has been in place for much longer. The two have known each other since they were 7 years old and began mowing lawns when they were 9 or 10 years old.

“It was the beginning of David J. Frank Landscape Contractors and he never stopped,” Wakefield says.

Wakefield continues to work with Frank, not because of friendship, but ability. “What a lot of people don’t know about David is that he understands agronomy and has invested a tremendous amount of time in horticultural education,” he says. “His baseline of knowledge sets him apart from other landscapers.”

Knowledge aside, customer service and the personal touch means a lot, too. “He takes a very direct interest in the work his firm does,” he says. “I know it’s a very large company, but he’s totally invested in this business personally, which sets him apart. If there’s a problem, he responds immediately.

“He has very strong interpersonal skills,” Wakefield adds. “He interacts with people directly, looks them in the eye and is a good listener. He wants to know what pleases his customers and responds very well.

Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, which was originally designed by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright, has employed David J. Frank Landscape Contracting for more than 10 years. According to Jeffery Griffith, Building Maintenance Supervisor at the facility, Frank’s company offers the expertise Monona is seeking.
“We demand a high level of quality and demand it on a daily basis,” Griffith says. “They are able to provide that for us. Everything we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done exceptionally.”

Based in Germantown, but with branch offices in five other locations, David J. Frank employees approximately 350 full-time people and hires additional part-time staff as needed. While the percentage of snow services is largely commercial (95 percent or more), the company does leave room for select residential opportunities.

“Our preference tends toward commercial,” Frank says. “We own a lot of larger equipment – wheel loaders; two-, three- and four-axle dump trucks – that is really unsuitable for residential work. We tend toward commercial as it matches the equipment and much of our client base.”

As is the case with most successful people, there is a strong network of support surrounding the company.

“My family plays a key role in my success – always having been very supportive and involved,” Frank says. “For more than 40 years, my brother Mike has run our landscape construction department and is really the ‘snow czar’ within our firm. He directs the snow production end of the business. I get more involved in the sales and marketing end of the snow.

“Several nephews are active in the company,” he adds. “My son, David, is chief financial officer and my wife, Jane, has been very active in the business and client relationships.”

Mike, chief operations officer, vice president of construction, snow department manager and the younger sibling by a couple years, says he would have joined the company sooner, but needed permission from his mother. Considering his older brother was building the business while he was in high school, Mike joked about the negative ramifications of having a “kid” operate the equipment.

With so much history between the two, Mike says his brother’s willingness to learn from the success and mistakes of those who came before him has aided in the company’s development. “He’s modeled himself after successful people and companies,” he says of David. “He’s always striving to be better.” The next generation – David’s daughter also works for the company – will be in charge of building upon this solid foundation.

Giving back
Frank’s company participates in approximately 45 separate professional, trade, community and civic organizations – either actively sitting on the boards or in management capacities of these groups.

“We are very active in community service projects, choosing several major public projects to make a difference with,” he says. “I personally have spent about 15 years on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association and went through all of the many committee head positions and all of the chairs, retiring as president in 1988.  Frank has also been on numerous PLANET committees through the years, including the insurance, safety and awards committees.

Kurt Bartel, production manager in charge of maintenance division, joined David J. Frank in 1989 and rattled off a laundry list of his boss’s charitable contributions. From donating time and equipment to beautifying community parks to restoring the inner city, Frank is taking an aggressive stance toward the city’s improvement. “He’s one of the leaders of the community and is dedicated to keeping Milwaukee beautiful,” Bartel says.

In addition to helping the less fortunate, Mike added cemeteries, high schools, churches, and myriad charitable contributions to his brother’s philanthropic resume.

“As a person, he’s one of the most generous people I know,” Mike says.

Look no further than the David J. Frank Landscape Contracting 50th anniversary party as yet another example. Knowing there were going to be hundreds of people in attendance, the company set up a clothing drive, food drive and had a blood bus on hand for those wanting to make a potentially life-saving donation. The focus of the party was on celebrating a half century in the business, but the true beneficiary was charity.

“He built this company in one, single generation,” Bartel says. “It’s his life and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to work for David.”

Management philosophy
While it’s not “wind them up and watch them go,” Frank puts a lot of faith in his work staff. It starts with bringing in the right candidates to the fold, giving them all the tools to succeed and being there to assist when help is needed.

“We work toward hiring the best people we can find, doing an excellent job training them, and providing support, encouragement, respect and recognition to promote a motivational workplace,” he says.

Bartel reiterates Frank’s approach, saying his boss’s dedication to clients and his drive to be the best exemplifies this philosophy. “He’s driven by his employees and committed to a quality staff and surrounding himself with the best people,” he says.

Mike says his big brother is a planner and speaks of his management style in terms of teamwork. “He tries to create an atmosphere where everyone around him is successful,” he says. “We are 250 people being successful and working together.”

Speaking of teamwork, Mike recalls how area football coaches liked his brother employing many of his players during the offseason as they were growing up. Not only did the student athletes stay out of trouble, but they also began the preseason in great shape from pushing mowers all summer.

In a career that has extended through six decades, Frank has seen – and overcome – plenty of challenges. Competing with cut-throat competition – those who will stop at nothing to win a bit, though often fall short in delivery – is always difficult. Beyond that, it’s legal involvement that tends to rear its ugly head – such as  hold-harmless clauses – provisions in the contract under which one or both parties agree not to hold the other party responsible for any loss, damage or legal liability – his customers are more frequently asking the company to sign these days.

Over the years, there has been far more positive than negative, of course, and Frank is quick to spin any possible hurdle into an opportunity to learn and grow. “If there is a disappointment, our philosophy is that it is possibly a great opportunity or stepping stone to ongoing success once mitigated,” he says.

Making lemonade out of lemons is one recipe for success, but those looking to build an award-winning business such as David J. Frank Landscape Contracting within the green industry should get involved.

“My advice for a person looking to get into the business is to join your local and national trade associations that promote education, best practices and professionalism such as PLANET, SIMA and local groups,” he says.